The Bombay high court (HC) at Goa has taken cognisance of a public interest litigation (PIL), challenging the approvals granted by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and its state counterpart for three major infrastructure projects that are likely to cause adverse environmental impact, and directed the Chief Wildlife Warden, Goa and other state government authorities to respond to the petition by July 24, the next date of hearing.
The three infrastructure projects are the double-tracking of South Western Railways, the expansion of national highway (NH) 4-A and a 400 kilo-volt power transmission line, whose 3.5-kilometre stretch will pass through the protected areas of Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary in a bid to augment power supply between Goa and Karnataka.
The projects will cut across the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park, an integral part of Goa’s nature and hinterland tourism, and are set to claim 170 hectares (ha) of pristine forestland in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats.
Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park are Goa’s oldest and largest bio-diverse reserve and are home to many tourist attractions such as the 12th Century Tambdi Surla temple carved out of basalt rock, gurgling Devil’s Canyon, and Dudhsagar Falls.
The PIL, filed by the Goa Foundation, has alleged that the approvals are in violation of the mandate given by Article 48A of the Constitution and the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and are also contrary to public policy and the recommendations made by NBWL, which comes under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
“The mandatory prior approval of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has also not been obtained,” the plea stated.
“The approvals have been granted without proper consideration and examination of the proposals and studies submitted. The environmental impact assessments of the projects, wherever done, have been shoddily carried out, with little or no proper evaluation on the impact on the wildlife habitat, including its biodiversity. No cumulative impact assessment of the three projects collectively has been carried out,” it added.
The petition prayed for quashing the approvals that have been granted by the authorities concerned.
The railway project is the biggest of the three infrastructure ventures, whose impact is likely to be felt in 113.857 ha of forestland in the protected area and felling of 18,541 trees.
The second project — the four-laning of the existing two-lane highway (NH—4A) — that was constructed by the Portuguese colonial government between Panaji in Goa and Belgavi in Karnataka will cost another 31.015 ha of forestland and the felling of 12,097 trees.
Lastly, the power project, which proposes to provide additional electricity feed to Goa from the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL).
The projects, which have been in limbo for the past six years for pending mandatory clearances, were approved during the 57th meeting of the standing committee of the NBWL on April 20. The meeting was held via video-link amid the nationwide lockdown restrictions, which were enforced from March 25 because of the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
The South Western Railway authorities have submitted an undertaking and have made provisions for eight underpasses for the crossing of wild animals in consultation with the state forest department, but these concessions have failed to impress the environmentalists and activists.